Q: What is like “an air traffic control system for the mind”?
A: Executive function, according to Harvard Graduate School of Education writer Bari Walsh.
Says Walsh, “Executive function – our ability to remember and use what we know, defeat our unproductive impulses, and switch gears and adjust to new demands – is increasingly understood as a key element not just of learning but of lifelong success… [It acts as] an air traffic control system of the mind – helping us manage streams of information, revise plans, stay organized, filter out distractions, cope with stress, and make healthy decisions.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about executive function (let’s refer to it as EF, at least in this blog post) and how new technologies can support children and adolescents (and many adults as well) in developing these essential skills. My interest is fueled, in part, by all the parents and teachers who have said to me in the past year or two, “Josh’s EF skills are just not there.” Or, “There must be a better way to help Lulu stay organized, tuned in, and productive. I need help!”
So, last week, when Nic and I had the opportunity to speak at the Learning & the Brain Conference in Boston, I sussed out several talks about this subject. Which led me to Sarah A. Ward MS, CCCC-SLP, the co-founder of Cognitive Connections and an expert on helping kids develop EF skills. Sarah has coached legions of families and schools over the years in areas such as helping kids prioritize tasks and planning and using time efficiently.
How does Sarah use digital media?
Sarah is a believer in adapting apps. One of her strategies is to ask children to imagine the near future - too visualise it. It’s not enough to say to a child, “Time to get ready for lacrosse practice,” she states. The child might think she is ready when she finishes eating her cereal and places her bowl in the kitchen sink. Instead, take a picture of the child when she is dressed appropriately, is carrying her sports gear, and is standing outdoors ready to leave for practice. Then have the child refer to the picture in “getting ready,” so she knows exactly what ready looks like.
Sarah also uses media to create a series of photos to show the sequence of morning routines in a classroom. By mapping out each step, using apps if appropriate, children come to understand how to enter the classroom in the morning, hang up their jackets in the locker space, grab their blue binders from their cubbies, and so on. All very organized and sequential.
Sarah also uses a free app called Skitch With Skitch she can take a picture of the classroom and then draw boxes around the parts of the photo that she wants to draw children’s attention to. (You can also add annotations and sketches.) Then she attaches these customized photos to a digital calendar for children to refer to day-by-day. (Nic suggests creating a digital storyboard with software, like ComicLife, to help children “see” their progress.)
For teens, Sarah has had success with the free app Tellagami. She shows students how to create their own avatar and write a script for the kind of “self-talk” they can use to guide them in tackling various tasks.
What Do TechnoTeachers Think?
These examples just scratch the surface of what you can do. But in a nutshell, the more you can make home (and school-related) routines and expectations crystal clear for students with EF disorder, the better their odds for success in academics—and in life. That is, the more you can show children customized photos, or images of themselves doing something they are planning to do in the future (e.g., get ready for a test, or a play production) the more ready they will be to succeed. They won’t be the one who left the science experiment at home because they forgot what day the science fair was being held. So, get creative. And think about how digital media can help.
For more ideas, see the resources Bari Walsh has gathered in his article “The Art of Control.”
Many of the activities he suggests, such as adults and children telling stories and writing them down together, reading books, and taking field trips, can be enhanced using digital media (e.g., photographs, internet research to prepare for the field trip, book-making apps).
I’ll be back again soon with more ideas for using everyday features found on most smart phones (e.g., voice memos, calendar alerts). But mainly Nic and I are interested in hearing from YOU. What digital tools have you found helpful in “the air traffic control systems” of your students’ minds?
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